Save the Cat

I don’t think I’ve talked about Save the Cat here yet, and how I used it to structure a book. This isn’t a “learn to write so you can make millions like me” blog, so I don’t know how important or useful it is for me to document this. And spoiler alert, the book I wrote using this method did not sell a million copies. But as I’m thinking about book ideas now, I keep coming back to this. So here goes.

Save the Cat! is book by screenwriter Blake Snyder, which describes his method of structuring and outlining a screenplay for maximum impact. It’s essentially a refinement or maybe simplification of the Syd Field “paradigm” or three-act structure, mixed with a healthy dose of the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey/monomyth thing, which has been beaten to death by any number of screenwriting gurus/hacks such as Christopher Vogler, George Lucas, and anyone who has ever made any money for Pixar.

There’s a lot covered in Snyder’s book, but if you’re writing a screenplay using his method, you basically follow these steps:

1) You create a logline. This is an elevator pitch, or a one-sentence explanation of exactly what happens in the movie. What’s important is that you start by writing the logline. You don’t write it after you’ve written the book. If you can’t explain the movie in a sentence, you can’t sell it, and you might not even be able to write it. It’s also important that the logline says what the movie is and not what it’s about, or where it’s set, or how it feels, or anything else. But most importantly, you need to get a logline that works before you do anything else. If it doesn’t work, you need to keep at it until it does.

A good exercise is to sit down and write the loglines for a bunch of existing movies. Three groomsmen go to Las Vegas and lose their about-to-be-married buddy in a blackout drunken bender, and have to retrace their steps to find him. An off-duty NYPD cop goes to LA to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists, which he must stop. A captain is sent up the river in Vietnam to assassinate a colonel who has gone crazy, or is the war what’s really crazy? A rich guy meets a prostitute with a heart of gold and falls in love. Whatever. 

2) After you get the logline, you come up with a title. Maybe the title changes later, but you do this first. It’s part of the refinement process, making a logline that summaries everything and making a title that explains it. So if, for example, if you pick a stupid title like The Journal of the Whills, and everyone you pitch it to thinks it’s stupid, you might want to keep hacking at it until you come up with something better, like Star Wars.

3) Snyder says there are ten different plots, and everything falls into one of those ten buckets. Anyone can argue it’s really 20 or 12 or 2, but he has ten. He has a sequel to the first book that goes through a ton of Hollywood movies and says which of the ten it falls into. Like the logline exercise, a good practice item is to learn the list of ten, and then go through existing movies and determine which plot they use. (There’s an entire message board where people argue about this.)

I’m not going to explain all of plots, but the ten include stuff like Monster in the House, Dude with a Problem, and Superhero. The categorization isn’t always obvious, and it’s not strictly by genre. The movie Jaws is a Monster in the House even thought it isn’t in a “house” per se. Alien is also a Monster in the House, but the house is a spaceship. You have a monster, you put it in the house, you put people in the house, you somehow piss off the monster with a Sin — something monetary or greed-based is always good — and then the people have to either get the hell out of there or somehow stop the monster.

4) One of the core tenets (and points of criticism, but I’ll get to that later) is that Snyder has a really specific 15-step outline that every screenplay should use. And each step takes up a specific number of pages. The fifteen steps form a three-act structure with the first act taking up 25% of the script, the second act 50%, and the third act 25%. I’m not going to dump his fifteen steps here; if you’re curious, google “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” and you’ll find them. If you follow the book, your plot should not only hit each of the marks in the list, but it should spend the specific amount of time on each step. If it doesn’t, it means (according to him) that something’s wrong with your plot, and you need to brainstorm it a bit more. 

A quick example is how he beats out Act One for a script. The first beats in his outline are Opening Image, Theme Stated, Setup, Catalyst, Debate, and Break into Two. Basically, you’ve got some guy in an office/kid in a space desert/private dick hired for a job. You open with some first-impression image of their dull office park/a monstrous castle in the distance/a dreary factory/a beat-up frathouse. You spend about ten pages describing the “before” and their everyday drag. Somewhere in there you state the theme, like in Office Space, the theme of “every day is worse than the last.” And then on page 12, some catalyst appears, like the droid your uncle bought shows a hologram of a princess asking for help. Or Captain Willard is given a mission. (Every military movie has someone being given a mission on page 12.) But you don’t take the mission right away; you burn the next dozen pages in conflict, because your uncle wants you to work on the dirt farm and you’ve got shit to do. Or you’re not sure you’re supposed to use your superpowers for good, because you’re just a kid in high school. At the Break into Two moment, the protagonist basically choses that he’s got to get off his ass and launch into Act Two. Luke’s Aunt and Uncle get turned into charcoal and he tells Obi-Wan they need to sell the landspeeder, find a dodgy pilot, and find this princess. Peter doesn’t go into work on Saturday and do his TPS reports. John Connor has to bust his mom out of the loony bin and stop the bad Terminator. The monster enters the lair. The protagonist’s life suddenly turns upside down.

One important thing about this formula is you have to hit each of those five parts, in that order, with those page lengths. If you cold open the movie with Luke and Han racing toward Alderaan, you miss all the foreplay of building Luke into this boy-turned-hero. If you don’t have the period after the Catalyst where Luke isn’t sure what to do, it’s not as exciting when he does decide to do it. There’s similar structure defined for all fifteen points in his outline.

5) You divide a board into four strips, one for each quarter of the movie (act 1, act 2 part 1, act 2 part 2, act 3) and you get 40 index cards, one per scene. You outline each scene on the cards. There’s some junk about putting the emotional change and the conflict of each scene on each card. The basic goal though is that each card has a purpose, contribututes to the rise, has its own conflict. None of the cards are “spend five minutes showing cool stuff for no reason/” When you lay out the cards, you pace yourself and avoid overloaded acts and black holes. A lot of writers have an Act 3 problem, where a ton of stuff happens in Act 2, and then Act 3 has a giant “and stuff happens” black hole between the turning point and the resolution. So you’re supposed to use this board with index cards to identify the cards clumping together and the empty spaces with no cards and adjust accordingly.

6) Once you have the 40 cards and the number of pages from the 15-step outline, you start typing. I used Scapple to make my virtual cards, then imported them into Scrivener, and was able to use that to create all the blank documents I then filled in with actual writing.

The book also has a bunch of sloganized rules on writing that might be helpful, but read the book if you want to get into that. One example is the title of the book: Save the Cat. You want your protagonist to do something in the beginning to make everyone want them to win. Another one is Double Mumbo Jumbo, which is the argument that you can get the audience to believe one bit of magic, but it’s hard to get them to believe two. You can have zombies, and you can have hobbits, but if you put both together, people won’t buy it. But he states this example, and then gives several counter-examples that have made billions of dollars. Like Spider-Man has the kid getting bit by an atomic spider and turning into a wall crawler. But at the same time, it has the Green Goblin dicking around with chemicals that spill and turn him into a monster. By his rules, this is too much suspension of disbelief. But every superhero movie is going to have Double Mumbo Jumbo, so… whatever. 

There are a lot more rules, many having to do with developing your good guy or your bad guy. One that I found useful was Six Things That Need Fixing. You give your hero a laundry list of problems, which sets them up so there’s payoff when the things happen. He’s stuck in a small town, his parents are assholes, he can’t get laid, his friends are losers, his job is stupid, he wants to go to college and can’t afford it. Then when the catalyst comes, you have these various goals adding to the conflict, and when the journey starts, he can start ticking off boxes from this list. Lots of other little tricks like that exist, some that work, some that don’t. The important thing though is the logline, the genre, and the 15 steps. 

* * *

OK, so why did this interest me? I don’t write formulaic fiction, and I definitely don’t write movies. I write a lot of nonlinear fiction, plotless fiction, gonzo fiction. Unlike every book reviewer on Goodreads, I don’t think there is a problem with plotless fiction. I believe anything experimental is important, and I think a lot of the tools mainstream writers use daily evolved out of people pushing the form in experimental writing. Telling writers they have to adhere to plot is like telling painters they have to paint pictures that look like they popped out of a Polaroid camera. The fact that there isn’t more plotless fiction is honestly a travesty, but that’s probably another post.

It bugs the shit out of me that people dismiss my writing because I often don’t use plot or follow formula. After Atmospheres came out in early 2014, I fell into a deep depression because it was my favorite book I’d ever written, and it didn’t sell, and the only real feedback I got were from people who weren’t the target audience for the book immediately dismissing it with the word “plotless” and that was it. And that made me really want to write something that was so insanely plotted, there was no way somebody could say that it wasn’t. I wanted to write a book with a bulletproof plot, just out of spite. So I studied plot, and I read dozens of books, and I ended up getting hung up on the Snyder book.

Save the Cat isn’t really meant for fiction. Books aren’t film, and there’s a lot more room for more complex narrative, things that couldn’t be shot, things that can develop in a reader’s head. That said, very formulaic fiction is totally like film, so StC can easily be used for writing this.

As I was studying StC and thinking about a possible idea for this next book, I watched a bunch of movies and carefully outlined and summarized them as I wrote them, trying to find the StC plot points. I also logged the times in the movie when these events happened. This completely validated Snyder’s formulas. I did this with three movies: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Blade Runner. All of them hit the exact points in Snyder’s 15-step beat sheet within a few minutes of accuracy. (All three of these were what Snyder calls a “whydunit,” which is basically a whodunit except you already know who, and you want to know why. Every crime noir is a whydunit. Every whydunit has a protagonist get knocked unconscious by a hitman at exactly the 90 minute mark, denoting the start of Act Three. It’s uncanny.)

I then went back and read Falcon and some other Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled fiction, and it more or less followed the same outline. The only issue with fiction is you have to fiddle with the page numbering. A script is 110 pages; a detective novel is about 200. So your first act is going to end at about page 50; you reach your All is Lost moment at page 150, and so on. And obviously writing fiction is more verbose than screenwriting; you’re going to end up with more words on the page in prose form, rather than the fancy indenting and whitespace you get out of Final Draft.

(I actually just looked this up again, and in 2018, a YA author wrote an official franchised book on using StC for novels. I haven’t read it, and this was released years after I did this. From the Amazon reviews, it sounds like it’s a rehash of the first StC book, but for novelists. So, I guess some people are doing this.)

* * *

There are many criticisms of Snyder’s book. One is that Snyder is a hack, in the “those who cannot do, teach” way, because he only wrote two released movies that were not exactly masterpieces, and a few loose episodes of a kids’ show. (He also died at age 51, so maybe with more time, he would have had his Citizen Kane. Or maybe he would have just churned out a StC sequel book every year.) 

The main criticism of the method is his strict adherence to specific page numbers for each transition in the movie. Your script must be 110 pages. The catalyst must happen on page 12. The finale must start on page 85. Because of this, the adherence to the ten genres, and the same basic tools for problem-solving means that, according to some critics, all StC scripts are basically the same. I agree with this assumption, and it’s a problem.

There are a lot of devout followers to Snyder’s rules, and this is pretty obvious in Hollywood. I know I will get a lot of shit about this, but I personally feel like every Marvel or Pixar movie follows this strict structure religiously, and that’s turned every summer blockbuster into a Mad Libs-like script where the only things that change are what’s filled in the blanks. Yes, every one of the 167 Spider-Man reboots drastically changes something about his powers or his origin story or how hot his aunt is, but go back to what I said about loglines a while ago — you’re changing the how or the where. You can change Bruce Wayne to be more edgy or more campy or more cartoony or more 21st-century or a metaphor for why we shouldn’t be in Iraq, but you’re still following the same outline. His parents will always get killed on page 25. And if you wrote a script for Marvel that didn’t have ten pages of origin story right after the theme was stated, comic book fans from around the country would flock to your house and beat you to death with collectible figurines and drag your corpse through the streets like you were the deposed leader of a third-world country. It Absolutely Must Happen according to template.

There’s a vicious cycle with this, because when producers and yes-men are trained to recognize this structure, and see this form making money, they will only green-light movies that match the formula exactly, and then we only see movies with this outline, which means in the future, the only movies that get financed… well, you get the drift. If you’re tasked to write this year’s Batman reboot and you turn in a 450-page script that burns 87 pages pondering Bruce’s childhood before even talking about his parents getting killed, you’re going to get a ton of red pen on your pages, and see very little movement in your bank account. Stick to the formula. And if you want to write some Richard Linklater Slacker movie that doesn’t follow the curve in exactly 110 pages, you can fuck off to indie-land, deliver pizzas to make the nut on your film stock, and release direct to video somewhere. 

This is an unpopular opinion, but I have the same feeling about best-selling kindle books. Writers structure page-turners in a very specific format, and readers are placated when they hit the same plot points at the same marks, and are pissed off when the Act 3 collapses too quickly or whatever. Books that meet this exactly are reviewed higher, which pumps the Amazon algorithm and spurn higher rankings. And then the sequels have the same structure to promote more sales. This is a race to the bottom, and it’s not art. It’s how people sell vitamins and energy drinks. I know, sour grapes, my writing sucks, and I’m a shithead for saying Marvel movies are formulaic. But something is getting lost by people feeling they need to match this formula. Every book is quickly becoming the same.

* * *

Despite the arguments against it, I tried the StC method, and I wrote a book using it. (This was six years ago. I won’t even mention which book, but you can figure it out.) There were some good things to the process. One is that I often don’t title my books until the end, and my book descriptions are almost an afterthought. Starting with those made me much more confident about the direction I was going. And the 40-card process made me figure out a few dead ends before I started writing. I have a bad habit of coming up with a great idea, writing a ton, and then the whole thing falls apart when I get into Act 2. With this, I knew exactly what would happen before I even started writing. That made the writing happen much faster, and I was much more confident about what was hapening. It was easier to keep on track, and figure out exactly what I had to do on each page.

One misconception with any of these Lego-like writing systems is that they don’t do all of the work for you. There’s a lot involved in figuring out exactly what the logline should be, who the characters are, and how it should all go together. You can’t take an idea like “guys selling drugs” and plug it into a mad lib template and have Pulp Fiction pop out of it. Mining and working ideas is hard; this system only really defines the pacing of how they work out.

I went into the process with a basic setting, an idea of a main character, and an idea. The beat sheet gave me a transformation or an application of that idea, how the protagonist struggled with the idea, and it forced me to use a certain number of characters to move the protagonist through the outline. It helped me develop my protagonist, and differentiate the other characters, not only to make them more interesting, but to make them more integral to the movement of the plot.

Another big thing this helped me with is the dynamics of the plot, the movement. Snyder has this saying, “Turn Turn Turn,” which is that a plot doesn’t just have to move, it has to intensify at each step. And this helped me a lot in my Act 2 to Act 3, which is what I always screw up in a book. I was able to raise the stakes through the plot in exactly the right proportions, but it also made it so my chases were more than just moving from point A to B really fast; it gave meaning to the chase, which brought the reader through the outline.

* * *

I really enjoyed writing the book, and I liked the structure of it. It developed well, and the experiment was a success in that way. But short story long, it did not sell. My faithful readers thought it was way too off-brand. “Serious” science fiction readers didn’t get it, and nitpicked the plot. (There are some other factors involved, and maybe I’ll write about that someday.) I proved to myself I could do it, but that I didn’t need to. I went back to writing weird non-linear stuff that doesn’t sell, and I guess that’s my lot in life. I sometimes think if I had the perfect idea, I’d do this again, but I think a lot of dumb things.

Anyway, this is the most I’ve ever written about plot, so I better get back to writing without it, before someone takes me seriously.


KONCAST Episode 9: Timothy Gager

In this episode, I talk to writer and poet Timothy Gager. He is the author of thirteen books of poetry and fiction, including his latest book of poetry, Chief Jay Strongbow is Real. He’s also the host of the Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Links from this episode:

Timothy Gager:

The Dire Reader Series:

Chief Jay Strongbow is Real:

The RCA eBook reader:
Click here to for more details on this new episode of The Koncast


Writers vs. Authors vs. Scammers

I keep thinking about the argument of writer versus author, and then saw this interesting news item about a scammer who made millions publishing junk ebooks on Amazon:

The summary is that a guy set up a small empire publishing hack e-books about homesteading, weight loss, vitamins, healthy lotions, and whatever Whole Foods-oriented how-to garbage would attract clicks. The scam used multiple fake authors and an army of fake customer accounts. He would then game the system with a network of fake reviews, and set the books for free and mass-download them to up the ratings. He carefully hid his tracks through the Tor network, and when a book got reported and banned, he would re-title it, and have another fake author release it with a new cover.

I think most writers have different reactions to this, but it’s a mix of two base thoughts: either “I waste all my time writing and publishing real books and some asshole publishing fake books on vegan child care is making tons of money gaming the system, this is bullshit” and “why am I not gaming the system, maybe not to this level of scamminess, but it sure would be nice to get some traffic.”

I think the best reaction to have, for me, and one that I don’t have, is something like “all of this is meaningless, and who cares how these scammers are destroying the industry, because I write to write, not to make a buck or get fame.” But it’s hard to think this way in a world where you have to pay to keep a roof over your head, and I think a lot of writers are somewhere on the spectrum of this being important, and make some ethical sacrifice towards this.

I’ve struggled with the “writer versus author” argument, and I feel like I need to invent a new set of terms, because these don’t seem quite right. But I think there’s a difference between people who write whatever they write because it is their passion or their lot in life, versus people who write to sell. That’s not to say genre writers who research what to write based on market trends can’t be passionate about their work, and people writing literary fiction can sell their work or modify it to meet market demands to some extent. It’s probably a spectrum, and writers make ethical or business decisions that push them in one direction or another on this range.

What makes me think about this is that the scammer in the article has made many decisions that are to the full-blown extreme of writing to sell. And when I read self-publishing help sites, all of these tactics about gaming the system are discussed to some extent. These sites talk about the importance of covers, how to title your work to get maximum reach, the use of pseudonyms, how to pick categories and add keywords and get reviews and whatever else. They are not as extreme as what this scammer did, but they are all things that aren’t related to writing, or the art of writing.

The thing that gets me is that this scammer chose books, but not because they enjoyed writing or making a connection with the reader at all. I’m not even sure if he actually wrote the books; he could have paid someone on Fiverr to do it. And it could have been anything other than books. The same tactics could have been used to sell nutritional supplements or baseball caps drop-shipped from China. And I sometimes feel that way with the other writers (authors, whatever) with which I share an Amazon bookstore. My books aren’t for mass-consumption, and sure, they don’t sell like a good vampire erotica series sells. But it makes me wonder if these other writers are more interested in marketing and selling than they are about writing. When the gold rush will end, will they will all move to selling insurance or lawn furniture or prepackaged meals online, or will they be writing book that make no money?

I wrote my novels before there was a kindle, before there was a self-publishing world. If Amazon disappeared tomorrow, I would keep writing, even if it meant going to Kinko’s and paying ten cents a page to give them to friends. It’s what I did back in the nineties, and it’s what I’d do again, if it came to that. Everything else shouldn’t matter. But it still creeps in my head, especially with a new book out, ready to face the world. This is something I struggle with, and I wish I didn’t.


Why I love analog

Real film. Not an instagram filter.

After shooting some 25,000 digital photos in the last decade and a half, I finally did something I never thought I would: I started shooting film again.

In a fit of boredom, I bought a Lomography Diana F+ camera. It’s a 40-buck plastic toy camera that shoots 120 roll film, with manual everything and a plastic lens that takes hipster-esque Instagram-y pictures. I took it out and ran three rolls through it, just to see what it would be like. It was tough, clunky, and awkward, but I loved it.

I haven’t shot film since 2000.  I got my first digital camera, a 1-MP Olympus point/shoot, at J&R Electronics in New York at the very end of that year.  I remember this well, because I had to take a bunch of use-it-or-lose-it vacation and essentially split work very early in the month of December for the rest of the year, and I got really sick on the first day off. I spent the whole vacation in a NyQuil daze, sleeping for 30 hours, waking up in the middle of the night to order hot and sour soup by the gallon from the crap Chinese place down the street, then going back to bed.  I eventually got ambulatory enough on the day after Christmas to brave a snowstorm that dumped a few feet of fluffy white snow over the island. I took the N train down to the City Hall stop to go into the electronics superstore that stood near the foot of the mighty twin towers of the World Trade Center.  I bought the camera, stumbled home, and took a bunch of shots of my kitchen and bathroom, amazed at how they instantly showed up in the tiny LCD screen.

Digital changed my life.  I didn’t have to go to labs, didn’t have to wait to see if a shot worked, and didn’t have the nagging self-censorship that a flunkie working the film counter at Osco’s would be looking at my prints. I took a ton of pictures with that little junk camera, and then moved on to a series of better point/shoots through the 00s before graduating to a DSLR in 2010.  I love shooting with the big Canon, but I still take more pictures with my iPhone. Both are fast, easy, and cheap.

But, there’s a disconnect. I average a few hundred shots a month, although it’s in fits and spurts; I will take out the DSLR for vacation or a baseball game and run a few thousand shots, but then it goes back to the shelf; the iPhone grabs a funny picture or something interesting maybe a few times a week, mostly snapshots of the cats or stupid products in stores. Sometimes these go to flickr, endless galleries of vacation shots that nobody looks at. Hell, I don’t look at them half the time.  I enjoy going back to remember something from ten years ago, but my least favorite part about vacation is trimming a thousand pictures down to a hundred and trying to caption them.  I wish there was a program that would do it automatically, as I’ve said before, but that’s a ways off.

I think that disconnect between us and what we capture, the intermediary of the digital screen and the promise of quick/easy/cheap causes us to produce things we don’t care about.  I don’t give a shit about most of those 25,000 shots I have in Aperture. Maybe 100 are really good works of art, and maybe 1000 of them are things I want to remember. And everyone is that way. Everyone with a digital camera has a million shots and nowhere to put them.  And nobody likes looking at them, except people you don’t want prying into them, like stalkers and annoying relatives. Nobody creates with a camera anymore; we capture, hoping it will help us remember what we quickly forget in our fast-paced world, but we never go back to look at it, and none of it matters. It’s something we feel we should do, like when people take a thousand pictures an hour when they have kids, but nobody’s going to cherish those pictures. They’re probably going to be gone in a dozen years, from a dead hard drive or some new change to formats that will make them all obsolete.

So the first reaction from anyone I told about this new camera is “why the hell are you shooting film?  Don’t you have an iPhone?”  And the answer is that the lack of immediacy, the fact that I need to think because each shot is costing me a buck and I won’t see it for two weeks, makes me more cognizant of what I’m doing. It gives me more of a relationship with what I’m creating. I mean, my iPhone is still taking better pictures, but there’s something about the process of going to the photo shop and talking to the clerk and being handed that envelope of prints and negatives, and then the surprise of opening it and going through to see what worked and what didn’t. I enjoy the process, even if it takes longer.

It reminds me of the days of going to a real record store, talking to the people there about what’s new and what’s cool, flipping through the stacks, looking at the artwork, smelling the vinyl in the air and seeing the other people there.  The whole ritual of going there is something I painfully miss, and buying albums made me more aware of them.  It’s damn convenient to go to iTunes, listen to a few samples, and click the buy button to instantly have it on your computer. But I buy stuff and don’t even listen to it, forget about it, and have to force myself to use playlists and rate things to find them and get into them.  I’m not aware of the music I have anymore.

It’s also the same with books.  Everyone is into the Kindle, and I sell more ebooks than paper these days.  But I download Kindle books that go free, or things I see online, and I never, ever read them.  I have hundreds of Kindle books I will never in a million years open. I read 100% of everything on paper, and I love collecting books. I cherish the print copies of things I really dig, and nothing beats the hypnotic experience of holding a dead tree in your hands and flipping through the pages.  Yes, it’s easier to search through a tech manual or textbook and find what you need on a Kindle or in a PDF. But the relationship between the reader and the work is much more solid on paper.  Will the Kindle disrupt publishing?  Sure.  The CD disrupted the production of vinyl. But people who love music are back to buying it.  Books are the same thing.

Anyway, the first film came out okay.  It’s going to take some practice to get into it, and I probably need a cheaper 35mm to do some learning. Here are the first shots. It’s a fun distraction, so I’m going to keep at it. I’m still shooting as much or even more digital, but there’s just something about analog I can’t shake.


I do not give a god damn about the book industry

I often get dragged into discussions about the book industry, mostly because people are too stupid to know the difference between Jon and Joe and blindly throw a @jkonrath into a tweet about how publishing is dying or some dumb company is fleecing even dumber authors who did the equivalent of paying $10,000 cash for head shots.

(Side note: It’s somewhat ironic that the term for this kind of shit is “joe job” given the name of the other person involved here.)

This is annoying on many levels, mostly because it distracts me from what I’m really trying to do.  But more than that, all of this talking head parroting sometimes makes me wonder why I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the publishing world.  I don’t read trades or spend time on publishing news sites, throwing down my opinion on whatever catastrophe is currently making the rounds.  I don’t take sides on publishers versus “indies” or who signed with who or who decided to leave their publisher and self-pub or what the guy who wrote Wool ate for lunch or any of that.  I don’t care.

I do not give a fuck about the book industry.  I mean, I like to read books, and I publish the final output of my work so you can see if you want to read it.  But I am a writer.  I’m not a shameless self-promoter, and I’m not an industry insider.  And I don’t want to be.  I don’t write books for maximum profits.  I write books because they’re trapped in my soul and need to be excised like the pus from a wound.  I know it sounds pretentious to pull the “I’m an artist” card, but I’m definitely not a businessman, and I do not care about any of it.

I recently read a book called Post-Digital Print, which was one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.  It outlines every “publishing is dying” screed that has happened since 1894, and I guarantee you that about a dozen of them are things you’ve never heard about.  Almost every one was invented by a company that wanted you to buy their shit instead.  Did you know that people thought radio would replace printed books?  At the turn of the century (or a couple of decades later, I guess) part of the population thought books were turning everyone blind.  It probably had some causal relationship to the rise in optometry technology at the time, and everyone was getting glasses, whereas before that only rich people got monocles, and everyone else squinted.  Anyway, some industry geniuses said that radio would replace “the burden of reading” and save everyone’s eyesight.  And we know how that turned out.

I’m not saying print isn’t suffering.  But it’s not going away, either.  There’s going to be a whole generation of artisanal printing, letterpress chapbooks and boxed sets of limited edition prints with high-end art book covers and over-designed interiors in esoteric fonts that makes Helvetica look like Comic Sans.  Look at what happened with vinyl records.  The 8-track was supposed to kill them, then the cassette, then the CD.  There are now vinyl-only stores, limited-edition LPs with extra tracks and slick printed gatefold sleeves encasing art books and 45-remastered dual discs on 200-gram virgin vinyl.  Yes, the airport reader is going to gobble down murder mysteries on their kindle, but book collectors aren’t going to be forced to shred everything and go to e-format.

What I am saying is that these talking head industry-mongers are not authors – they are inflating their own egos for their own industry, which is fear-mongering and hand-wringing. It doesn’t help your writing.  They’re the people selling the ten dollar loaves of bread to the people who showed up late to the gold rush.  It’s all bullshit.  It’s all inconsequential.

Speaking of, gotta get writing – trying to finish the next book.  I’ll end with a quote from my buddy George Carlin that pretty much sums it all up.

I figured out years ago that the human species is totally fucked and has been for a long time. I also know that the sick, media-consumer culture in America continues to make this so-called problem worse. But the trick, folks, is not to give a fuck. Like me. I really don’t care. I stopped worrying about all this temporal bullshit a long time ago. It’s meaningless.

-George Carlin


Mandelbrot and Genre Writing

I’ve been in the post-book-release period of my writing cycle where I don’t know what I’m doing next, and I don’t know what I should be reading, so I start poring over non-fiction, usually some junk science book.  Specifically, it’s that James Gleick book Chaos, which is about chaos theory and the butterfly effect.  I mostly read stuff like this to pour random facts into my head with hopes that I’ll go off on a tangent in some wikipedia-reading frenzy and end up finding the pieces of my next short story.

Part of the book talks about Benoit Mandelbrot, who once said this:

Science would be ruined if (like sports) it were to put competition above everything else, and if it were to clarify the rules of competition by withdrawing entirely into narrowly defined specialties. The rare scholars who are nomads-by-choice are essential to the intellectual welfare of the settled disciplines.

That got me thinking about genres, and writing.  I’ve been knocking against this invisible wall with regard to genres, because I don’t really fit into any one category.  And every self-publishing make-money-fast scheme online talks about how you need to market yourself by finding your niche and building your platform to sell to that slice of the reading public.  Every person out their schlepping their own advice on publishing will tell you about the importance of hitting up the forums relevant to your category.

When I’m depressed about not having stellar book numbers, this feeds into a horrible cycle of negativity.  I don’t sell books because I don’t market.  I don’t market because I can’t find the people to market to.  I can’t find the people to market to, because I don’t know how to categorize my work.  And I don’t know how to categorize my work because I don’t really like any of the categories.

That’s a big part of the problem.  I don’t read a lot of straight genre fiction, because it bores me.  While I like picking at the edges of the science fiction genre, I find the die-hard stuff to be so goddamn serious.  I can’t stand fantasy.  And romance and thriller aren’t even on my radar.  The books I like are combinations of different things, or aren’t representations of the category as a whole.  Vonnegut wasn’t a science fiction writer per se; he sometimes fell into that category, but his stories had a humor you aren’t going to find in the typical outer space robot book.  Burroughs had the same distinction.  Was Hunter S. Thompson a journalist or a humorist or an essayist or what?  And Mark Leyner wasn’t literary fiction, but he wasn’t general fiction, either.

The big issue is that when you define success as straight-up numbers, nothing but copies sold and dollars taken in, you’re competing more than you’re creating.  You’re not going to push boundaries or do what you truly want; you’re going to stick to that same narrowly-defined plot structure that everyone uses to maximize the number of readers you can satisfy.  You’re going to think of how to market a book and then write it, instead of creating what you truly need to create as an artist.  It’s like the difference between a painter like Jackson Pollock laying his soul and his inner demons onto the canvas, versus someone being handed an RFP by a hotel chain for a thousand identical paintings that meet certain requirements.  When you write for the market, you may sell, but you probably won’t innovate.

I don’t want to dole out yet another hero’s journey monomyth novel because I can plug it by saying “it’s like <current hit> but with <other thing people like>”.  I feel like I need to continue down the path I’ve followed with the last few books, but I also feel like it’s okay if I suddenly want to write some non-fiction, or a book of essays, or whatever else.  I’d hate to wake up someday and be told I can only write dystopian literary occult police procedural fantasy fiction, or that I couldn’t do what I want because it won’t sell.  Life’s too short to back yourself in a corner like that.



Goodbye, iUniverse

My first royalty check

No, iUniverse isn’t going out of business.   (Well, maybe they are – I haven’t checked.)  I’ve just decided to pull my books from iUniverse.

I’ve done three books with them, and the idea of print on demand radically changed my writing career.  I mean, I have not made millions from it, but prior to the advent of PoD, I thought the only way I’d ever hold a printed copy of my book in my hands would be if I wrote a million agents and publishers and found one willing to print it, or if I payed thousands of dollars to fill my garage with a short print run, or maybe if I went to Kinko’s and printed my own copy.

Someone told me about iUniverse back in 99 or 2000, and this was around the time Summer Rain was close to done.  It was an incredibly revolutionary idea back then, this thought that I could get real copies of my book, and get them in Amazon and other book stores, and even have it so brick-and-mortar book stores (remember those?) could order copies through Ingram.

There were a couple of issues with PoD back then.  One was cost.  Summer Rain was incredibly expensive compared to the per-unit cost of offset printing a few thousand books.  There wasn’t the setup, and you didn’t have to produce a bunch of books at once and then warehouse them, which was awesome.  But selling a paperback book for thirty bucks was never easy.

The stigma was the worst part.  Back in 2000, everyone looked down at PoD as hackneyed and just another extension of vanity presses.  The party line was that real writers don’t self-publish, and you weren’t shit unless you had a book deal.  The irony of this is that the proponents of this attitude are the same people who can’t shut the fuck up about the kindle revolution.  (You know who I’m talking about.)  To some extent, this didn’t matter to me; I had a copy of my book on my shelf at home, and friends could buy it and read it, and people enjoyed the work.  That’s all that ultimately matters to me, but there was still a nagging feeling in the back of my head when the “real” writers talked shit about self-publishing.

I also didn’t have high hopes that PoD publishing would reap all of the rewards that getting a book deal with a Big 6 publisher would.  There was a lot of PoD backlash from people who dumped a book onto a PoD publisher, and then bitched and moaned when it didn’t take off.  I never saw iUniverse as anything more than a printer, and didn’t expect them to do anything more than fulfillment.  But some people thought you would just upload your PDF and your book would suddenly take off like a Dan Brown release.  Truth is, PoD involves just as much hustle as printing off copies yourself and trying to sell them one by one.

So, why am I dumping iUniverse?  A few reasons:

  • When I first started, there was almost no initial setup fees – I may have paid some trivial amount, like a hundred bucks, but it wasn’t much.  This fee went up and up, and after my third book, Lulu came on the scene with no setup fee, and that was the end of the line for me and iUniverse.  Now, their most basic package is $899, and the “Book Launch Premier Pro” is a whopping $4499.
  • All I really wanted was fulfillment and distribution.  iUniverse tried to differentiate themselves with all of this “value add” stuff that was mostly useless.  I have no need for bookmarks, press releases, book signing kits, or other crap I could get online for a dollar.  (Vistaprint is your friend.)
  • Without asking, iUniverse decided they would create e-book versions of my books and price them the way they wanted to price them.  And they made it damn near impossible to remove those versions.  So while I made a new version of Rumored to Exist for the kindle and priced it at $2.99, they made a crappy version and priced it at $3.99.
  • The per-unit pricing was too high.  Summer Rain was $29.99 on iUniverse.  The lulu version was $14.99.  The createspace version will be $13.99.  My profit is roughly the same on all three.
  • All of the processes at iUniverse are antiquated.  To find out your royalties, you have to wait for the next month’s statement.  To pull a book from publishing, you have to write them a god damned letter.  Ugh.
  • One of the things iUniverse had over createspace was that createspace is part of Amazon, which meant you wouldn’t get into B&N or brick-and-mortar stores.  With iUniverse, you could get into anyplace that used Ingram’s database.  In practice, 99.99999% of my book sales are through Amazon.  I don’t know if I’ve ever sold a book through a brick-and-mortar store.

So I wrote a letter to iUniverse and pulled my books.  (Seriously, a letter?)  There are currently only three books on there: Summer Rain, Rumored, and Tell Me a Story About the Devil, which is a journal archive from 97-99 that none of you ever bought.  The first two are already moved to Amazon/createspace.  The last one can die on the vine.  If you’re really desperate to get any of the iUniverse editions before they go away, I think you probably have a few days to grab them.  But the newer versions are not only better, but cheaper.

Next up will be hemming and hawing about what to do with all of my books on lulu, and if they should also get moved.  I should probably stop screwing with all of this and actually write new books, though.



I’ve been thinking more about this whole self-publishing thing. Printing copies of Rumored and selling them wouldn’t be much of a paradigm shift over when I printed copies of Xenocide and sold them from my apartment. It would cost about a jillion times more – actually, it wouldn’t cost that much more, since Xenocide 5 had a color cover and was photocopied 50 issues at a time, it cost about $2 per copy. To print 1000 books with a softcover and a square binding would cost somewhere around $2-$5 depending on pages, shipping, etc etc etc. So it’s more money initially, but not more money per capita.

The main thing about selling books vs. selling the death metal zine was that there was a whole underground network to sell the zine. There are a lot of dedicated fans of extreme metal music, and they are all pen pals and write each other and send everyone’s fliers for zines, demos, CDS, shirts, etc to each other. And there are many zines who will trade ad space for nothing or sell you a back cover ad for only a few bucks. With Xenocide, I just printed the zines, printed a bunch of fliers, and pretty much waited for the checks to come rolling in. I wish there was such a fanatic group of book buyers out there. With this project, I’ll really have to scrape to find small bookshops that are willing to pick up books on consignment. That’s the real pain in the ass. My only relief is that if I do sell Rumored and just sell copy by copy in all of these mom and pop stores, I will have a good database compiled by the time I try to do the second book.

The editing of Rumored is going okay. I broke down a task list of what I want to accomplish over the next month or two. The first task, which is underway, is just a line-by-line read of the whole thing, to fix the obvious and remove the idiotic. As of last night, I am 1/3 through that. Then it goes to a harder edit, where I completely scrutinize each little piece and spend a lot of time finely molding each word. Then I make a pass where I arrange things (the current order is arbitrary) and cut things that I don’t like. Through these three steps, I might add more stuff as I’m going. If I feel like 100% new writing, I will do that.

And now that I’m thinking of the followup to Rumored, I wonder if this book should be all of the freak-out stuff, with more of the personal stuff in another book. I thought about writing a book that’s just 10 or 20 long, personal narratives – each like a 10,000 word short story or something. It would still have some experimental aspect of it – sort of like that Hubert Selby Jr. book where it was a bunch of short stories and each guy had the same name but otherwise they were radically different. I love that kind of thing. But I am thinking about the next book and how it will happen. Mostly, I just want to produce another great vehicle that people will love and that I can finish fast. I don’t want to do this Summer Rain meets War and Peace 12000 page monologue with nothing grabbing in it, just for the sake of remembering my past. I’d love to do that stuff someday, but I guess it’s something you belt out later in your career. I mean, Kiss spent a few years belting out these kick-ass stadium-destroying power albums before they started doing the weird experimental shit and the solo albums. You can’t hit off right away with a novel that’s about a bath towel or something. I want to start out with a roar and then work my way to a gentle glow. But who knows, I change my mind every 10 seconds with this shit…